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[KH Explains] Entrapment in the 'Kakao Kingdom'

Collectivistic culture combined with pursuit of information leads to Koreans' heavy reliance on KakaoTalk

July 18, 2023 - 15:39 By Jie Ye-eun

Lee Yu-jin, a 34-year-old office worker who has gone on parental leave, thought about deleting her KakaoTalk account, as she wanted to disconnect from co-workers and acquaintances during her temporary break. But she could not get away from the messaging app, as it has become a crucial conversational tool among moms in her son’s kindergarten.

Since its introduction as a free mobile messenger in March 2010 under its vision to “connect everything,” KakaoTalk has quickly dominated the Korean messenger app market.

As of the first quarter of this year, the number of monthly active users exceeded 48 million in South Korea, a country with a population of 50 million people. Globally, the number of users has hit the 53 million mark.

Amid its immense popularity here, an increasing number of users are also feeling a sense of fatigue from excessive messages and notifications from various group chats.

“As I spend most of my time at home taking care of my child, I often got tired of getting hundreds of Kakao notifications during the day. We can probably live without using social network services in general, but it’s a little different for Kakao since it has become an ‘essential app’ in Korean society. I decided to cut down on the usage as much as possible,” Lee said.

According to a recent poll conducted by the job-seeking portal Incruit, about 82 percent of the 731 respondents said that they experienced stress due to group chat rooms on the messaging platform. They sometimes get message alerts that go off after work and numerous unnecessary small talk messages which continue through the night. They also found it difficult to leave the chats in the past because of a feature in which users' exits are made visible to all the participants -- making it burdensome for those who do not wish to draw attention to themselves.

Freedom to ‘leave silently’

In February this year, Rep. Kim Jung-ho of the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea and 10 other lawmakers proposed a bill calling for the right to leave KakaoTalk chatrooms “silently.”

When a KakaoTalk user leaves a chatroom, there used to be an automated announcement stating that “(User name) has left the room.” The bill aimed to address the inconvenience of users who get invited to non-Open Chat group chats against their will, and do not wish to draw attention to themselves when leaving.

Three months after the bill was proposed, Kakao announced the launch of the “leave silently” feature, allowing users to leave non-Open Chat group chat rooms without other participants getting notifications. In the first 21 days of the service, about 2 million users used the function, according to the company.

“KakaoTalk is no longer a simple conversational platform, as users’ relationships continue to diversify on it. We’ve received so much positive feedback after introducing the ‘leave silently’ function since it was a feature that most users wanted,” a Kakao official said.

“We plan to continue updating and improving more functions to alleviate stress caused by unnecessary messages and notifications in the messaging app. Future updates may include features such as easy notification toggling or personalized notification settings to cater to individual user preferences,” the official added.

Regarding the new feature, an official of Rep. Kim’s office also said, “We are pleased to provide an opportunity to publicize such an issue. Users deserve the right to be free from messaging apps.”

Wind of change at work

With an internet connection, now users can access to KakaoTalk anytime and anywhere. It is also simple to add friends via their ID, phone number or QR code. On the downside, anyone can add a user as a friend and send a message. But since it’s easy and convenient, it is one of the most frequently used apps among employees.

The messaging app has changed the work environment here in various ways. Experts said the way workers communicate through messages broke down the country’s distinct top-bottom hierarchy structure, creating a relatively horizontal relationship between managers and employees.

“Before the KakaoTalk service, there was a top-bottom hierarchy structure among employees where the youngest worker had to deliver information and updates to their superiors. Employees also had to meet in person or talk over the phone, considering their availability, but nowadays, they just send and respond to messages whenever they are available,” said Kwak Geum-joo, a psychology professor at Seoul National University.

The professor added that these trends also influenced youth in Korea, who experience so-called “telephobia” -- a reluctance or fear of making or taking calls. They are more comfortable texting instead.

The Kakao’s biggest benefit often turned into a drawback at work, especially when employees worked remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic era.

A recent survey, co-conducted by a pro-labor civic group Gapjil 119 and Ubuntu Fund, on 1,000 employees showed that 60.5 percent of the respondents had been contacted by their workplace after working hours and holidays via phone calls and messaging apps.

Escape from hyperconnected 'Kakao Kingdom'

Everything is hyperconnected on KakaoTalk. It connects people, as well as numerous services affiliated from taxi-hailing to banking.

In October last year, Kakao suffered its worst-ever server shutdown, with its key services, including KakaoTalk, malfunctioning for hours. The accident also clearly revealed how heavily Korean people were dependent on the messaging app.

At the same time, many people here said they felt “relaxed and free” during the unprecedented KakaoTalk disruption.

A male user who asked to be identified only by his surname Jeong said he was anxious about not being able to communicate on KakaoTalk at first. But when he realized that the service wouldn’t be available for a while, he felt quite liberated.

“I was involved in over 25 group chat rooms, so I usually received hundreds of messages in less than an hour. Without getting bothered by message alerts, I was able to read a book calmly at home alone for the first time in a long time, putting my smartphone away. It felt great," Jeong said.

Professor Kwak of Seoul National University said that the combination of Koreans’ collectivistic culture and people’s pursuit of information caused local users’ heavy reliance on the messaging app, and created an internet-based hyperconnected society in what is dubbed the “Kakao Kingdom.”

“Being a non-Kakao user means that the person is alienated from the national network. It’s extremely difficult for Koreans to avoid KakaoTalk, unless they choose to live a secluded life," said Wi Jong-hyun, a professor at Chung-Ang University's College of Business Administration.